Join Us

Sign up for the lastest information from the IBEW!

Related ArticlesRelated Articles



Print This Page    Send To A Friend    Text Size:
About Us

July/August 2005 IBEW Journal

Adversaries of unions in the construction sector have never taken kindly to project labor agreements between organized labor and contractors that require union wages and benefits on construction projects in return for labor peace.

Contention over PLAs has included generations of sparring and open confrontation between unions and nonunion contractors in numerous forums from courts to state legislatures and city councils.

Today, building trades leaders see a new wave of opposition to PLAs on the rise. They are putting on the gloves and winning some rounds in the ring of public opinion and politics to defend and extend the agreements.

Unions and supporters of PLAs contend that the pacts have been a huge success in bringing labor stability and increased productivity to construction projects.

"PLAs keep good union jobs with decent health care and pension benefits in our local economy," said International Representative Howard Ritchie, Construction and Maintenance Department. "They keep the money coming back into our communities."

Opponents of PLAs, led by the vehemently anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), argue that PLAs drastically expand the costs of construction projects and are unfair to employers who have not signed union contracts.

President Bush has empowered anti-union contractors to fight PLAs. In one of Bush’s first acts in office in 2001, he instituted an executive order banning PLAs on federal construction projects.

Despite the administration’s stance, the trades are fighting back and winning victories by building political influence in their communities. Pat Lavin, business manager and financial secretary of Diamond Bar, California, Local 47 and an IEC member, has been in the thick of the fight for PLAs. He credits California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), a union coalition, with "incredible" achievements, resulting in PLAs on 40 power plant construction projects in the state since 1996.

Formed by the IBEW at the height of the utility deregulation debate in the late 1990’s, CURE’s membership consists of the various building-trade labor unions involved in the construction of power plants. The coalition’s chairman, Bob Balgenorth, a former IBEW business manager at Local 441 in Orange County, California, also heads the California State Building Trades. IBEW Local 18, under Business Manager Brian D’Arcy, has strongly supported CURE. Members of (CURE) are IBEW Locals 6, 11, 47, 234, 302, 332, 340, 428, 440, 477, 569, 595, 617, 1245.

PLAs generally provide that employers and the building trades will initiate more flexible assignments and scheduling of trade members on individual projects than would exist under their separate labor agreements. In return, all trades employed on the project, whether union or nonunion, are paid union scale, with all employers contributing to union health and pension funds.

Ritchie credits the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, for establishing the policies and procedures for negotiation of project labor agreements. These were approved by the presidents of the national and international unions affiliated with the department. In 1976, the model project labor agreement broke down jurisdictional walls that were impeding the unions’ ability to maintain market share amidst aggressive nonunion competition.

PLAs usually feature no-strike clauses, provisions for grievance and arbitration of PLA disputes and trade jurisdictional issues and constructive vehicles such as safety and labor management committees. Other understandings include the regular scheduling of second shifts with caps on premium rates, common starting times, and lunches for all trades and hiring preferences for workers based on residency.

ABC’s challenge to PLAs was initially focused in the courts, with nonunion contractors arguing that PLAs were an unfair restraint on commerce. According to Peter Cockshaw, publisher of Cockshaw’s Construction Labor News, ABC lost the vast majority of cases in court. "They ran out of gas," he says. The battleground over PLAs then shifted to city, county and state legislatures.

The argument that PLAs increase construction costs, especially on large public school projects has been refuted by several recent studies. ABC has persisted, however, with a $3 million public relations campaign, successfully pushing columnists on some of the nation’s most influential newspapers to accuse political leaders who support PLAs of "selling-out" to organized labor and wasting public tax dollars. The message is also showing up on billboards along major highways.

In Washington, D.C., ABC and the Capital Area Minority Contractors have teamed up, sending a flashy mailing to hundreds of thousands of residents, contending that PLAs undermine good jobs for minorities and work opportunities for minority contractors, asking them to write to Mayor Anthony Williams. Jerry Lozupone, Secretary-Treasurer of the Washington, D.C., Building Trades and a member of IBEW Local 26, angrily accuses them of turning the truth on its head."

Mayor Williams signed a PLA on a $535 million new baseball stadium project because he knows that we can deliver good career opportunities to district residents, while agreeing that 35 percent of the contracting goes to local small disadvantaged business enterprises," he said, emphasizing IBEW Local 26’s successful efforts to recruit African-American apprentices and its work in the Hispanic community, including English classes for apprentices.

Marvin Kropke, business manager and financial secretary of Los Angeles Local 11, says that success by the IBEW and other trades in "leveling the playing field" with nonunion contractors is causing ABC to "rise up" against complying with laws that force them to provide union-scale wages and benefits. That success includes the $16 billion Project Stabilization Agreement between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Orange County Building Trades.

CURE’s political efforts in California have drawn praise throughout the IBEW. The need for good paying jobs and a future for California’s youth is one of CURE’s main messages to the public. "Every time CURE unions sign a contract to build a new power plant, workers take a cut from their own paychecks to underwrite training, providing economic opportunities to California’s graduating high school students who aren’t college bound," a pamphlet said.

Balgenorth speaks with pride about CURE’s victories in fighting for and enforcing California’s clean air rules covering utility projects by building strong ties with environmentalists and groups like the Sierra Club.

The coalition’s determined approach is key to its victories. Local 47 had warned residents of Riverside that a nonunion firm that was employed on a city redevelopment project had a history of shoddy work. The firm’s crews recently triggered an outage affecting thousands of utility customers, about 100 downtown businesses and a separate outage at a hospital due to a switching error.

Local 47 and CURE are wasting no time reminding the community that safe and reliable service is at stake when construction wages and benefits take a dive. After the Riverside City Council rejected a PLA on a new power plant Lavin said, "We are actively seeking to elect pro-labor candidates to the council and rid ourselves of council members who don’t have the best interests of working families in mind."

The fight for union market share in construction is protracted and complex, requiring IBEW leaders to move with the same flexibility that is at the core of PLAs. Sometimes this means not putting all of the union’s eggs in the PLA basket.

In St. Joseph County, Indiana, the building trades fought a winning battle for an ordinance that required that management of construction projects that have been granted tax abatements pay prevailing wages.

The local Chamber of Commerce leaned on county council members to revoke the ordinance, implying that it was a threat to the county’s ability to attract a major investor to build a local coal gassification plant. The council overturned the ordinance.

Mike Compton, business manager and financial secretary of South Bend, Indiana, Local 153, and other unionists resigned from the board of Project Future, a local development group that included the Chamber of Commerce, in protest of the Council’s action.

Compton said he is still confident that the coal plant will be built under a PLA and that unions will lay fresh groundwork for new ordinances.

IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill says, "ABC and other adversaries will place many obstacles in our way. But, by building political leverage and reaching out to our communities, we will defend PLAs, win new understandings, and extend the IBEW’s market share to cover a new generation of union electricians."

Watch For Changes in
NEBF’s Web site

There have been numerous changes at the National Electrical Benefit Fund (NEBF) and the National Electrical Annuity Plan (NEAP) and we don’t plan to stop working on new ways to better serve our internal and external customers!In the coming months, we will launch our innovative and newly redesigned Web site. You will be able to track the historical progress of our Fund and Plan, find answers to your questions about our organization and links to industry affiliates.

Visit www.nebf.com in the very near future and "buckle up" for an exciting and new experience.